No. 48 Bartram Trail
(Wallace Branch to Cheoah Bald, plus return via Appalachian Trail to Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser)
Nantahala National Forest west of Franklin
No. of days: 4-5
They were the words I didn’t know I’d been waiting to hear, and it took me three days to hear them.
“This may be the toughest trip I’ve ever done,” Chris David said as we launched up yet another climb, this one a kick-step affair gaining nearly 1,000 vertical feet in 0.9 of a mile. It came at the end of a 17-mile day.
Chris’s words carried some weight. He took his first backpacking trip, a 50-miler, as a Boy Scout in the early 1960s, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1983, and has pretty much kept going ever since. His knowledge of trails in North Carolina’s high country is encyclopedic and feet-on, with nearly every mile tromped with about 35 pounds on his back. Curiously, though, this 42-mile stretch of the North Carolina Bartram Trail had eluded his hiking resume. This was his virgin run, and he was impressed.
“This may be the toughest trail I’ve ever done,” he repeated in case I hadn’t heard him through the kettledrum pounding in my ears.
The North Carolina Bartram Trail was established by the N.C. Bartram Trail Society to honor naturalist William Bartram, who spent four years (1773-1777) exploring the Southeast documenting the flora and fauna of “the New World.” The route (there are Bartram Trails in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama as well) roughly approximates the route Bartram took on his travels (documented in his book, “Travels”).
Of the more than 600 miles of trail in western North Carolina’s rugged Nantahala National Forest, the 42 on this trip are among the most challenging. Save for an 8.5-mile stretch in the middle, this section of the Bartram is either rising precipitously or dropping so. There are few opportunities to recover; the last 6 miles, up Ledbetter Creek to 5,049-foot Cheoah Bald, is especially challenging, gaining more than 3,000 vertical feet, much of that over the first four miles. Fortunately, the trail is well-marked, easy to follow and the tread itself is in good repair.
Our initial plan was to camp the first night at a generous primitive camping area below Wayah Bald, an 11-mile hike in from the Wallace Branch trailhead. That plan did not assume a longer-than-anticipated shuttle set-up and a 1:15 p.m. start. As it was, we were pressed to reach Locust Tree Gap (the second Locust Tree Gap; there are two within less than five miles), only the second suitable campsite, just before sundown. I was glad to get the pack off my back, sad that I had to forgo one of my backpacking rituals: evening tea.
A good time to talk about water on the Bartram Trail. In spots, you have it in abundance. Otherwise, there is none. When the trail is low, from mile 21 to 26, for instance, the trail follows the Nantahala River; likewise from mile 35-36.5. When the trail climbs, water is scarce: for the first 10.1 miles of this trip there is none. I’d packed in my usual two liters, and the trail’s unexpected challenge had consumed one of those. Knowing it was another 2.5 miles to water, and knowing that morning coffee trumped evening tea, I called it an early evening.
A good time to note, too, that of the tens of decent campsites on this 50.1-mile trip, only five have water. Thus, it’s especially important to keep your eye on known water sources and anticipate your water needs. On night two, we pulled into a gorgeous campsite above a waterfall, but the narrow gorge precluded fetching water directly. Rather, we had to walk nearly a third of a mile down the trail to fill up for dinner.
What got my mind off the dearth of water early on were the pristine skies and the promise of 5,342-foot Wayah Bald. “You can see about every mountain in the Southeast,” Chris had promised before the trip. Indeed, under winter-clear skies, you could.
From the top of a three-story stone observation tower we looked south to the Standing Indian area, where Chris recounted past journeys on the AT as it summits — Standing Indian, Big Butt and Albert Mountain — stood crystal clear in profile. We looked west to the Bob Allison area and the Snowbird Mountains beyond. To the northwest we tried to pick out our destination, Cheoah Bald, and to the north we admired the crest of the Great Smokies. And looking back to the east, we tried to figure out which ridges had brought us up from Wallace Branch. The only drawback: Wayah Bald is connected to a picnic area and a 4.5-mile road that brings admiring visitors up from below.
From Wayah, we were looking forward to the 7.4-mile drop down to Nantahala Lake. A nice, mellow descent that would fly by, that would allow for moments of distracted introspection, that would give our legs a break. And that wasn’t to be. Some descents in the high country are like that. The generally mellow 14-mile return from Clingman’s Dome to Fontana Lake, for instance. Or the 8-mile descent from Bluff Mountain in Doughton Park to Basin Creek along Flat Rock Ridge. But not here in the Nanatahala National Forest, where descents are marked by sharp drops, quick climbs, more sharp drops. By the time we reached Nantahala Lake, a three-quarter-mile walk on the shoulder of paved Wayah Road didn’t seem so bad. Nor did the six miles that started the next day, along the Nantahala River.
But then it was time for more climbing, up to Rattlesnake Knob (where we inadvertently treed a bobcat), and another knee-jarring descent into the Nantahala Gorge.
The stars of this trip, the features that would be highlighted in the Bartram Trail Tourism Bureau brochure (if such a thing existed) would be Wayah and Cheoah balds. For me, the postcard moment was the stunningly tough climb up Ledbetter Creek, from the Nantahala Gorge up to Cheoah Bald. Stunningly tough, and stunningly ... stunning.
Ledbetter Creek is not big, emptying a very compact drainage. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in ferocity. At the base, where the gorge is too narrow to accommodate trail and the Bartram detours up — straight up — the side of a mountain, you can hear Ledbetter carving through the gorge a good half mile before rejoining it. In a two-mile stretch mid-climb, it’s waterfall after waterfall, culminating in Bartram Falls. Where the 45-degree slopes aren’t covered in mountain laurel, rhododendron and rock outcrops, hardwoods manage to grow sentry straight. Around the 4-mile mark a ghost forest inhabits the west slope, the tangle of dead trees testament to some not-so-distant cataclysm. It’s take two steps, stop and gawk.
Just past Bartram Falls, the trail has a change of heart. The narrow gorge gives way to a wide valley. Suddenly, Ledbetter Creek becomes a passive waterway running through a mellow Southern Appalachian hardwood forest. Around mile 6 there’s one more quick, punishing climb before the trail merges near the crest with the Appalachian Trail and, shortly reaches Cheoah Bald and more great views.
This is not a trip to take lightly. Several times, Chris wanted to make sure that I would rate this trip “very strenuous, not just strenuous.” I took Chris’s expertise as a Sierra Club outings leader to heart, but really it was my legs that cast the deciding vote for “very strenuous.” Especially if you’re hiking in warmer weather, take more water than you think you’ll need. Even if you don’t typically use them, use hiking poles on this trip (your knees in particular will be grateful). And, again, if you’re not accustomed to leaving an itinerary with someone, do so. Much of this trail is not heavily traveled, and while the solitude is generally welcome, it’s not if you have a problem.
Respect the Bartram, though, and you shouldn’t.
For an interactive version of this map, with campsites and water sources, go here.
Trailhead: From US 441 and US 64 in Franklin, go west for one mile on US 64, then turn right on Sloan Road. Go 0.3 miles (past the Nantahala Ranger Station), and turn left on Old Murphy Road, then take an immediate right on Pressley Road. The road deadends, after 1.7 miles, at the trailhead.
Distance: 50.3 miles (including 8.2-mile return on the Appalachian Trail from Cheoah Bald to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser.
No. of days recommended: 4-5.
Loop / out-and-back: Out-and-back.
Difficulty: Very strenuous.
Shuttle: From Franklin, take NC 28 north for 20 miles to US 19/74 and go south for 8.5 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Park in the back lot of the NOC (check in with the NOC store to let them know you’re leaving your car).
Campsite locations: Included here are primary campsites (with GPS coordinates), indicated on the map by a tent. Secondary sites suitable in a pinch are indicated on the map by a yellow circle. Locust Tree Gap, 7.6 miles (N35 11.651 W83 27.890); 9.6 mi. (N35 11.000 W83 33.330); large camping area with nearby shelter and water, 10.2 mi. (N35 11.076 W83 33.660); meadow, 13.0 mi. (N35 10.414 W83 35.274); meadow, 13.8 mi. (N35 10.202 W83 35.923); meadow, 14.5 mi. w/water (N35 10.202 W83 35.923); 33.9 mi. (N35 16.123 W83 40.810); 36.7 mi. w/water (N35 17.000 W83 40.501); 38.2 mi. w/water (N35 17.564 W83 40.800); 38.7 mi. w/water (N35 17.656 W83 40.958); 42.1 Cheoah Bald, numerous camp sites (N35 19.505 W83 40.852); 43.31 mi., Sassafras Gap Shelter (N35 19.883 W83 40.031); 44.2 mi. (N35 20.210 W83 39.292); 45.2 mi. (N35 20.332 W83 38.390); 46.8 mi. (N35 20.685 W83 37.546); 48.0 mi. (N35 20.453 W83 36.643); 48.9 mi. (N35 20.280 W83 36.1140).
Map: “An Interpretive Hiking Map of North Carolina’s Bartram Trail, North Carolina Bartram Trail Society” (www.ncbartramtrail.org), 1:35,000, 50-foot intervals.
Water (with GPS coordinates): 10.1 miles (N35 11.073 W83 33.526); spring, 10.3 mi. (N35 11.024 W83 33.705); spring, 12.6 mi. (N35 10.432 W83 35.005); Bateman’s Lakeside Camp (water, food), 18.6 mi. (N35 11.845 W83 38.243); 21.4 mi. (N35 12.152 W83 39.445); 21.0 mi. (N35 12.158 W83 39.258) and for the next 5 mi. from Nantahala River; 29.7 mi. (N35 14.767 W83 40.347); 35.11 mi. (N35 16.453 W83 40.710) and for next 1.1 mi.; 36.7 mi. (N35 17.000 W83 40.501); 38.2 mi. (N35 17.564 W83 40.800); 38.7 mi. (N35 17.656 W83 40.958) and for much of the next 1.5 miles;
Trip highlight: Rugged stretches, especially up Ledbetter Creek; views from atop 5,342-foot Wayah Bald and 5,062-foot Cheoah Bald.
Special considerations: A very challenging trail. Save for an 8.5-mi. flat passage from Nantahala Lake to just past the Appletree Group Campground and another 1.5-mile greenway stretch a short while later, this trip is all up and down with few opportunities for recovery. The trail is, however, very well marked and maintained.
Night hike in? Yes. Starting from the Wallace Branch trailhead as suggested, there’s a suitable campsite 4.0 miles in. While the trail is challenging, the tread is good, the trail difficult to lose.
Solo? Yes. With a few exceptions (deeper gorges, primarily) cell phone reception is surprisingly good and the trail, though challenging, isn’t booby-trapped with danger zones.
Family friendly? No.
Bailout options: Yes. Numerous roads cross the trail during its 50.1 miles.
Seasons: All, although there are stretches best avoided in snow and ice.
Solitude rating: 4 (out of 5). The Bartram Trail is underutilized. You’ll likely encounter fellow explorers at Wayah Bald (there’s a road to the top, an observation tower, picnic facilities and restrooms), around Nantahala Lake, near the Appletree Group Campground and along the 1.2-mile greenway stretch along the Nantahala River near Winding Stairs. Otherwise, expect solitude.
Nearest outfitter: Nantahala Outdoor Center, Wesser. www.noc.com, 888.905.7238.
Hunting allowed? Yes.
More info: North Carolina Bartram Trail Society.